The sad and disturbing increase in gay teen suicides is depressing, but the response to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project is nothing less than inspiring.
Watching the It Gets Better Canada video, the descriptions of gay life in high school echoed my own experience growing up in Australia.
No, I’m not gay. I’m not even a visible minority; you’d be hard pressed to find a more pasty-faced WASP outside of Wales.
My defect, so to speak, was that I wasn’t Australian.
I pray that things have changed, but in 1970s-era Oz was extremely xenophobic. If you weren’t born and raised in “The Lucky Country,” you were an intruder.
I was four when we moved to Tasmania, but my Canadian accent earned me the nickname “Yank” or “Seppo” (Australia rhyming slang for septic tank = Yank). And trying to point out that Canada and America were separate countries didn’t win me friends.
When I turned 11, my mother pulled me and my sister out of school and we spent a glorious year playing hooky in England.
I no longer had to read boring textbooks dictated by the school system. My mother took us to museums and art galleries, ballets and fringe plays, concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, and street festivals in Covent Garden and Hyde Park. It was the most culturally-enriching year of my life.
When we returned to Australia a year later, I’d swapped my Tasmanian-Canuck accent for a plummy marbles-in-the-mouth “toff” one. Once again, I was the subject of abuse at my new school.
No one would sit with me at lunch, an agonizing hour that felt like a lifetime. I did my best to avoid eye contact, and tried to hide in the library as long as I could. Boys called me a “fucking Pom” and girls made fun of my haircut and “daggy” clothes.
Perhaps worse than my accent, though, was the fact that I actually enjoyed learning. I excelled in English, Music, Art, History and Geography, but subjects like these are anaethema to Australians. It’s probably the most sports-centric nation on earth – and I was terrible at Phys Ed.
Kids put chewing gum in my hair, wrote nasty graffiti on my locker and around the school, tripped me up and made fun of me in class. I cried almost every day for two years, and begged my mother to take me out of school again.
The only kid whose life was more hellish was the school’s only Jewish kid, Benny.
The beatings, both physical and verbal, that he endured on a daily basis made me wonder how he didn’t commit suicide. And while I didn’t join in the verbal attacks, I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t befriend him, either.
Things let up when we moved again, and I was put in an all-girls school in Wollongong. Without all the rampant testosterone, I was finally allowed to be myself in peace.
A year later I came to Canada. The first questions I asked my first Toronto friend were, “What poisonous snakes and spiders should I be aware of, and what kind of initiation ceremonies do schools have for new kids?”
Thankfully I enrolled in Central Tech’s art program, where for the first time in my life I was surrounded by other artists, oddballs and outsiders. I was so happy after my first day, I almost cried again, this time with relief.
But as miserable as my school years were, I can’t imagine the pain and fear that must go with growing up gay. Even in a liberal environment like Toronto, the pressure to conform from parents, as well as bullying students, must be overwhelming.
To all of my friends, gay or straight, flamboyant, eccentric, and unique, I’m grateful to have you in my life. Thank God we made it here.